NASA Deliberately Blew Up The World’s Largest Rocket Fuel Tank To Test Its Limits

The blown-up tank from the December 5 test. NASA/Dennis Olive

NASA is testing its new rocket to the limits and actually a fair bit beyond. Engineers with the agency have blown up one of the test tanks of its new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to see just how much it could withstand. In a test conducted on December 5, the tank took more than 260 percent of its expected flight load over five hours before the team even detected a buckling point. This eventually became a full-blown rapture.

The SLS rocket is the "the most powerful rocket ever built," according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. It's the rocket that will take the first woman and the next man to the Moon as part of the Artemis mission in the next decade.  

The test version of the tank, which is the biggest in the world, is equipped with thousands of sensors to measure stress, temperature, and pressure, as well as high-speed cameras to record any changes in fine detail. The goal is to know exactly what the true breaking point of the fuel tank is.

“We purposely took this tank to its extreme limits and broke it because pushing systems to the point of failure gives us additional data to help us build rockets intelligently,” Neil Otte, chief engineer of the SLS Stages Office, said in a statement. “We will be flying the Space Launch System for decades to come, and breaking the propellant tank today will help us safely and efficiently evolve the SLS rocket as our desired missions evolve.”

Once operational, the tank will be filled with hydrogen but given its extremely explosive nature, nitrogen and hydraulics approaches were used to simulate the incredible payload in the test. This is the largest-ever controlled test-to-failure of a NASA tank, and will benefit the entire field of rocket design.

“We are happy that NASA’s tests with the core stage structural test article will contribute not only to Space Launch System flights but also to the design of future rocket propellant tanks,” added Julie Bassler, manager of the SLS Stages Office.

The information collected in this test will be instrumental in the upcoming mission for the Artemis program, which will see American astronauts landing once again on the Moon, in preparation for one day going to Mars.

The maiden launch of the SLS is expected to be in late 2020 under the codename Artemis I, with a crewed mission currently planned for late 2022, when astronauts will take a trip around the Moon.

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